Egypt’s pyramids baffled even ancient Egyptians: ruins of a third dynasty (2686-2613 BC) funerary temple in Saqqara impressed and mystified nineteenth dynasty observers many centuries later. Hieroglyphic graffiti at the site include kudos from visitors, as well as critiques of other graffiti: “My heart is sick when I see the work of their hands,” wrote one visitor, who signed himself “a clever scribe without equal among many men of Memphis.” In travel notes from 1849, Gustave Flaubert griped about “the number of imbeciles’ names written everywhere” on pyramids he visited. Emily Teeter, curator of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the Oriental Institute, says that the stream of foreign tourists coming to behold, depict, and often deface Egypt’s wonders began with curious Greeks in the sixth century BC. After the Roman conquest of Egypt around 30 BC, a tourist industry arose, with paid guides plying their trade and inns popping up on the route to the ruins. Some six centuries later, the Arab invasion brought another wave of admirers.
To inaugurate the Oriental Institute’s new temporary exhibits gallery, Carol Ehlers, curator of the LaSalle Bank Photography Collection, selected 25 photographs by Linda Connor, Lynn Davis, Tom Van Eynde, and Richard Misrach to show how four American photographers–“unconstrained by the responsibility of reporting,” as the accompanying wall text states–frame Egypt’s famed sites today. In Tour Buses and Pyramids, Misrach foregrounds the timeless tourist enterprise by positioning the far-off pyramids of Khufu and Khafra at Giza between a parked pair of shiny tour buses.
The Oriental Institute has added a little display of contemporary artifacts near the photo exhibit as a nod to the role modern culture plays in fetishizing ancient Egypt. There’s a poster for the current Field Museum exhibit “Cleopatra of Egypt” alongside items such as a pulp novel titled I, Cleopatra and a puzzle depicting Miss Piggy in the guise of the legendary queen.
“Angle of Repose: Four American Photographers in Egypt” continues through Sunday, January 27, at the Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesdays, 10 to 8:30 Wednesdays, 10 to 4 Thursdays through Saturdays, and noon to 4 Sundays. Admission is free; for more information, call 773-702-9514.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Misrach.